Friday, May 26, 2006

Visiting Madison's Forest Hill Cemetery, Part One: Graduating to the oldest generation

For most of my life, I avoided cemeteries. I had parents and grandparents, great aunts and cousins who assumed responsibility for taking care of family graves. They were the people who spent Memorial Day weekend planting, pruning, and decorating, often logging hundreds of miles as they journeyed to visit cemeteries scattered throughout Iowa and Wisconsin. Other, more distant relatives, cousins I'd never met, tended graves in New York and Massachusetts.

Even when I had opportunities to visit cemeteries that were the final resting places of famous people -- Père Lachaise in Paris, or Highgate in London, for instance -- I demurred. I wasn't interested.

But if you live long enough, eventually you find yourself slowly moving up in the ranks, eventually becoming a member of the oldest generation in one branch of your family tree, and then another. That's when you are confronted with making a decision about whether or not you will assume responsibility for family graves.

That time arrived for me in 1998, when my father died. Suddenly, I had four graves in Madison's Forest Hill Cemetery to attend to, including that of my uncle, Wallace E. Goff, the first Madison man killed in action during the Korean War. So I began to visit and to learn more about caring for gravestones and what kinds of plantings were acceptable. Two years ago, just before Memorial Day, The Capital Times published two articles I'd written and researched on caring for gravestones and how local cemeteries regulated flowers and plantings on gravesites.

Last year, I began this blog and developed an interest in the history of Madison Central High School. The more I learned about the school's history, the more I realized Forest Hill Cemetery was the final resting place of many of the men and women who had been students, teachers, and administrators (as well as their spouses, children, and other relatives) during the school's 100+ years in Madison. I made some visits to Forest Hill to look for some alumni graves and discovered it could be, weather permitting, a wonderful place to visit and stroll -- a serene sanctuary in the midst of a sometimes noisy city. A placed filled with history. A home to majestic trees, effigy mounds, noisy birds, thousands of hosta plants, and the occasional racoon.

But although I've written about the Wisconsin Veterans Museum's annual "Talking Spirits" guided walking tour of Forest Hill, and am aware that Historic Madison, Inc., the organization responsible for the creation of "A Biographical Guide to Forest Hill Cemetery" (and "Bishops to Bootleggers: A Biographical Guide to Resurrection Cemetery"), also hosts tours, my visits to Forest Hill have always been solitary. That changed this week. What was supposed to be a brief trip to write a post about preparations for Memorial Day weekend (with, of course, some sort of Central connection) became a very different adventure, one that provided me with a very different look at Forest Hill.

Note: Full-size (8½" x 11") maps of Forest Hill Cemetery, such as the one shown above, are available from the cemetery office, located near the entrance near the intersection of Speedway Road and Regent Street.

1 comment:

D Strand said...

I appreciated this post, Nadine, because like you, I have stayed away from cemetaries as boring places, but can now appreciate what you appreciate about them, that they are filled with history and connections to some of our loved ones. My maternal grandparents are buried there!